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CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Metro's board of trustees voted Wednesday to reduce bus service and suspend fare collection in response to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19.
"This is not an easy conversation," said Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board Chairman, Kreg Keesee. "I think it's the right one for the community."
Beginning Sunday, March 29, all local Metro routes will begin operating on a Saturday schedule, and some express routes will cease running temporarily. The transit agency posted the changes to its service here.
Metro CEO Darryl Haley briefed transit board members at Wednesday morning's special meeting, reporting that by the end of last week, ridership on local buses had declined to half as many rides as the same week last year. Express routes had dropped by 80%, Haley said.
"There isn't any route that's anywhere close (in ridership) to where it was the first week of March," Haley said. The service reductions will vary by route, but most will include shorter hours of operation and buses that arrive less frequently.
The steep drop came after a 10-week period of apparent growth in the number of Metro rides year-over-year, compared to 2019.
Haley said Metro's budget is going to take a hit, as well. With the drop in rides comes a drop in fare revenue, and Metro's primary source of funding -- 0.3% of the city's earnings tax -- will likely come up short due to the rise in unemployment after Gov. Mike DeWine began ordering the closure of bars, restaurants, most retail and other non-essential jobs.
And then there's the $1.5 million in lost revenue from Cincinnati Public Schools students who are out of school until further notice, possibly the rest of the school year, Haley said. Metro will have to reimburse the school district for the fare it purchased in advance on behalf of students who used Metro to get to and from school.
Haley said he recommended the reduction in service primarily to limit the potential for riders to transmit the virus.
Taking further action, Keesee also recommended temporarily suspending fare collection on the Metro buses that will remain running, at least through April. The idea is to minimize contact between bus riders and bus operators and eliminate the need for a rider to touch a fare box.
The proposal -- filed by board members Peter McLinden and Maurice Brown, and introduced by Keesee -- requires the board to revisit whether bus fare should remain free and reauthorize the decision on a monthly basis.
"Our intent is not to go on a permanent you-never-have-to-pay system," Keesee said.
The board approved the motion to suspend fare collection.
The Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky and the Butler County Regional Transit Authority reduced service and suspended fares last week. Officials with all three agencies said they did not expect the service reductions to result in layoffs for transit employees.